I Take Bible Too Seriously to Take It Literally

The only book we had in my childhood home was the Bible! Though my mother had only a sixth grade education, she read the Bible daily until her death at age 96.

In our home, the Bible was more than a book. It was a revered icon, a visible repository of God’s revelation. We learned its stories, memorized verses and entire chapters. It was the source of our ethical compass.

The church of my childhood proudly described itself as “fundamentalist.” The King James Bible reigned supreme as “God’s Word,” as though dictated by God rather than being published in 1611 under the direction of Anglican King James I.

One of my most dramatic and memorable childhood experiences was seeing a copy of the newly Revised Standard Version of the New Testament burned during worship. The preacher declared that “Communists and atheists” translators had “tampered with the Word of God.”

He proceeded to set the pages on fire so that this “corrupt” version of the Bible would burn, just as its translators would “burn in hell.”

The preacher’s point was clear: We must take this book seriously; tampering with it has drastic consequences!

His point is correct! The Bible is to be taken seriously. Failure to do so has far-reaching consequences.

The problem is this: “Seriously” to the preacher meant “literally.” He failed to realize that literalism can be a way of avoiding taking the Bible seriously, and the results can be devastating.

Literalism tends to rob the Bible of its depth, beauty, mystery, and imagination.   Taking it literally means you don’t have to probe its meaning because the meaning is self-evident (” the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” or “it means exactly what it says”).

Literalism can be an avoidance mechanism against the deeper meaning. Focusing on the details of whether a great fish really swallowed Jonah distracts from the harder truth of the story: God loves our enemies as much as God loves us!

Or, reading the first two chapters of Genesis as factual accounts of how creation came into existence enables us to avoid the question why and our role as participants in the ongoing nurturing of the earth.

In reality, we are all selective literalists. A participant in a Bible study challenged my assertion that one can believe in Genesis and in evolution.  He argued, “The Bible clearly says that God created the world in six days. Evolution contradicts the Bible and I believe the Bible. The Bible means exactly what it says!”

A few weeks later, we had moved to a discussion of the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’s admonition to “love your enemies,” “turn the other cheek,” and “go the second mile.” I asked, “What are the implications of these passages for our criminal justice system and the use of the death penalty.”

The man who had previously insisted on a “literal” interpretation of Genesis 1 responded: “Well, it can’t be taken literally or we would have to be pacifists.”  He obviously was being selective in his literalism.

Some passages should be taken literally: The Great Commandment, love your enemies, the Beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount, 1 Corinthians 13 to name a few. But even these have to be interpreted, amplified, explained.

Taking the Bible seriously requires that we interpret each part by the meaning of the whole. That is, every passage has to be viewed in terms of its relationship to the overall theme of the Bible–God’s mighty acts of salvation of human hearts, communities, and the entire cosmos.

Ripping verses from the Bible and using them as “proof texts” is tantamount to a surgeon removing an organ without knowing the organ’s relationship to the whole body. We would charge such a reckless surgeon with malpractice.

I firmly believe in the authority of Scripture! Its authority, however, does not reside in its verbal inerrancy.

Here is my understanding of the Bible’s authority: Its authentic witness to the Word-Made-Flesh and its power through the Holy Spirit in community to transform human hearts, relationships, communities, and the entire creation into the likeness of Jesus the eternal Christ.

Being transformed by the Bible requires more than superficial reading, like reading a fortune cookie or daily horoscope. It requires delving deeply into the context, language, nuance, ambiguity, contradictions, and mystery beyond the literal words.

Taking the Bible seriously involves the insights of the community, including the scholars who have devoted their lives to understanding the Scriptures.

Serious reading of Scripture requires putting ourselves in the stories and being changed by the message. Scripture interprets us as surely as we interpret Scripture. Only those willing to be transformed by the Holy Spirit speaking through Scripture take the Bible seriously.

So, the final test of how seriously we take the Bible is the character formed in us. Is the Bible —

  • shaping us into the likeness of Jesus Christ, who is the true Word of God?
  • expanding our capacity to love, including those deemed the “other” or “enemy”?
  • deepening our commitment to and practice of compassion and justice?
  • empowering us to participate fully in God’s present and coming reign in Jesus Christ?
  • increasing our faith, hope, and courage to live God’s vision of a healed, just, and reconciled creation?

If the answer is “no,” we aren’t taking the Bible seriously, even if we literally “believe every word it says.”

A Surprising Word of Grace

I entered Linda’s room shortly after she had been bathed. She was wide awake! When our eyes met, a faint smile appeared. I leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. I remarked as I combed her hair, “You look pretty in that pink gown!”

Then, I spoke the words I say several times every day: “I love you!” Seldom does she respond, or seem to know what I’m saying, or even who I am. But not this time!

She looked intently into my eyes. A broad smile appeared. Then she clearly spoke these simple, surprising words: “You’re wonderful!”

Such poignant moments of connection are inexplicable and rare for someone in the advanced stage of dementia.

The question often haunts me: Does she know that she is loved, that I  love her? So seldom does my presence make an observable difference.

Feelings of powerlessness in the face of her restlessness and agitation are the norm. Sadness and grief are always lurk in the shadows.

But unexpectedly, inexplicably comes a moment of connection, an assurance that love endures, that persistent expressions of devotion matter.

I don’t know what neuroscientists would call it. I call it GRACE!

Knowing She’s Loved Is More Important Than Her Knowing My Name

Linda awoke from her night’s sleep with me standing over her, gently stroking her hair. She gazed at me with a confused look and asked, “Who are you?”

Being forgotten is a painfully common experience of those whose spouse or parent has dementia.

It hurts to never hear your name called by one with whom your life has been lovingly intertwined for decades.

“I’m Kenneth, your husband,” I responded as I leaned over to kiss Linda on the forehead. “I love you!”

Suddenly, the confused look gave way to a twinkle in the eyes and a gleeful smile. There was a recognition deeper and far more important than my name.  It was the recognition, “I am loved!”

I often hear family members, pastors, and friends say they don’t visit those with dementia because “they don’t know me any longer.” Increased isolation results and persons with dementia get cut off from the very thing they most need–the assurance of love.

Whether Linda knows and speaks my name is far less important to me than she know that she is loved.

In her fleeting smile and momentary sparkle in the eyes, I knew that I, too, am loved. And, we both are enfolded in a Love that transcends words or the sound of our names.Clasping hands 2

 

 

 

 

Demeaning, dehumanizing, disrespectful, hateful speech is dangerous!

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It’s one of the ugliest and most deadly developments in our society: the normalizing of demeaning, dehumanizing, disrespectful, hateful, bullying speech!

I know, such speech has been around since humans developed language. What’s new is its growing normalization and acceptance by society, its being a favored discourse of the president and other public figures, and its pervasive dissemination  on social media.

Dehumanizing and demeaning speech directed toward other human beings is more than a language problem. Words are formed in the heart before they make it to the lips! Jesus made that clear: “. . .what goes out of the mouth comes from the heart. And that’s what contaminates a person in God’s sight” (Matthew 15:18 CEV).

Such speech is more than bad etiquette. It is deadly poison that can lead to catastrophic consequences. Dehumanizing speech robs people of their inherent dignity, reduces them to enemy or worthless, and motivates rejection and potential violence.

I learned in an introduction to logic course in college that the use of personal insults in confronting issues is an old and popular fallacy in logic. It’s called the Ad Hominem Argument (also, “Personal attack,” “Poisoning the well”).

Attack and discredit the person and you don’t have to deal logically with his/her arguments. It’s a form of intellectual laziness as well as ill-formed character.

Multiple important issues confront our society and churches. Rising above specific political, theological, and ecclesial issues is the preservation and nurture of the inherent dignity and worth of every human being.

May our language reflect our respect for the God-given dignity of every person and may we demand the same from our political and religious leaders!

This paraphrase of Jesus’s warning states it forcefully: “Let me tell you something: Every one of these careless words is going to come back to haunt you. There will be a time of Reckoning. Words are powerful; take them seriously. Words can be your salvation. Words can also be your damnation”(Matthew 12:36-37 The Message).

Gleanings from Responses to “Why I Changed My Mind about Homosexuality and the Church”

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Much to my astonishment, more than 60,000 people have read the blog entitled, “Why I Changed My Mind about Homosexuality and the Church.” (here)

The shear numbers speak volumes about the feelings associated with the topic. People want to discuss the issue in a common desire to discern a faithful way forward.

This is a teaching moment and many people are listening and eager to share. The church must be a compassionate participant in the conversation.

Another surprise: Less than 2% of the 60,000 expressed explicit disagreement with my position of full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the life and ministry of the church. That says to me that people are more open and accepting than we often assume.

With few exceptions, those disagreeing have been respectful and civil in their opposition. Less than a dozen were mean-spirited, which suggests that we can have a civil conversation while disagreeing!

The most poignant revelation in the responses is the extensive pain and deep hurt people are carrying. The stories of rejection, cruelty, ostracism, and struggle are heart-wrenching.  Some contacted me personally to share wounds they are afraid to expose publicly.

While there are those who say that the language currently in The Book of Discipline (here) is compassionate, thousands of people are hearing and experiencing rejection, hatred and exclusion.  Regrettably and sadly, the language is being used as justification for bullying, demeaning, and ostracizing God’s beloved and faithful people.

Tragically, the hurtful message is coming from the institution that exists to bear witness to God’s boundless love and radical hospitality!

I’m even more convinced that the current official language violates two of three United Methodist General Rules:  “Do no harm” and “Do all the good you can.”  Our pronouncements are inflicting terrible suffering on individuals and families; and we are denying the church of the witness and leadership of many gifted persons whom God has called into ministry.

We must get inside the pain within ourselves and those most affected by our pronouncements and policies; otherwise, we will continue to inflict wounds rather than contribute to reconciliation and healing.

An additional gleaning from the responses:  Considerable confusion exists as to the meaning of “authority of Scripture” and the role of the Bible in Christian formation and living.

I grew up in fundamentalism. Taking the Bible seriously is indelibly etched into my heart and soul. I challenge anyone who concludes that I fail to take the Bible seriously or reject its authority. It’s because I take Scripture seriously and authoritatively that I can’t take it literally.

Getting into the world and transformative authority of the Bible is arduous work, requiring that we

  • struggle with its original contexts and languages,
  • locate ourselves in the stories and let them read and transform us,
  • wrestle with its deepest questions and probing ambiguities,
  • listen attentively for God’s divine Word within the human words,
  • read each specific passage in the context of the whole narrative of God’s revelation from Creation to God’s supreme revelation in Jesus Christ,
  • strive mightily to embody and live its core message of love for God and neighbor.

It is through that struggle along with the engagement of our tradition, reason, and experience that I have come to believe that the exclusionary language in the Book of Discipline should be removed. Removing the language, in my opinion, is an act of faithfulness to Scripture.

I accept that others who take the Bible with equal seriousness differ from my perspective and conclusion. I claim no infallibility or superiority in understanding. We all read Scripture within our own personal and cultural context and experience, which limits our understanding.

Scripture, therefore,  is to be read and interpreted in community. We need one another to challenge, question, and expand our finite perceptions, but always with respect, humility, and mutual longing to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.

The responses to the blog post also confirm my conviction that legislation will not resolve the issues or silence the conversations.  Legislation results from a coercive exercise of political power by a small minority representation of the whole, operating within a strict time frame and emotionally charged environment.

Regrettably, open conversations are only beginning in many local congregations. From my experience, local churches are much better able to deal with the issue of human sexuality than is a legislative body.

In our local congregations,  the issues are personal, not abstractions; and with appropriate encouragement and assistance, congregations can deal with volatile issues with civility, compassion, and humility. I’ve witnessed it, as recently as last Sunday!

Many of the responses to my reflections have come from members of the LGBTQ+ community. They clearly exhibit the fruits of the Spirit–“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control” (Galatians 5:22). The whole church needs their presence, leadership, and witness!

Finally, I have been confronted again with my own need for repentance for my blindness, silence, and complicity in the church’s discrimination against LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters. I voted for the exclusionary language in 1984 and 1988 and I have been publicly silent too long.

My prayer is that God will forgive and empower me to bring forth fruits worthy of repentance, and that the church will fully embody the reconciliation and hospitality entrusted to it by the Triune God.

 

 

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